- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

Its 10:30 on a Saturday morning at the Bellevue Mall, outside Nashville, Tenn. The "Fall for Kids" fashion show begins in an hour, and some three dozen children between the ages of 3 and 16 are crammed into two makeshift dressing rooms.
The younger girls are excited and nervous. But the older kids are painfully aware that this brief foray into local celebrity is not really about showing off their fancy new clothes. Its about showing off themselves.
All of todays models are foster children, and the hope is that they will capture the hearts of passers-by en route to the Gap, Radio Shack or Chick-fil-A and entice them into becoming adoptive parents.
The fashion show, sponsored by the Nashville-based Center for Adoption, is one of the more controversial versions of an "adoption party" — an event at which potential parents can meet foster kids in what is supposed to be a fun-filled and relaxed atmosphere.
Officially, the purpose of todays event is to reach as wide an audience as possible to publicize the fact that these children are available for adoption. However, most of the people attending are aspiring parents who have already visited the Center for Adoption Web site and want to see what the children look like in person.
Adoption parties have been held throughout the country for some 20 years, but they have multiplied since the 1997 passage of The Adoption and Safe Families Act, a law intended to speed up the adoption process.
The girls dressing room is full of excitement and anticipation as they pull together the outfits their caseworkers bought on a shopping spree at Target. They are being pampered in a way they are most likely not used to.
Jazmon, 15, tightens her lips over her teeth as the makeup artist applies red lipstick. Next to her, Nikki, a blond 10-year-old, tells the hairstylist to "make me look like Britney Spears." Monica, 8, also bent on Britney, says, "I once saw her wearing pants like these," pointing to her lavender faux-leather slacks.
Although the caseworkers have told the children the purpose of this event, many of the youngsters havent seemed to absorb it. When 10-year-old Tiffany is asked why she is here, she says, "for the fashion show." Asked if there is another reason, she replies, "No. Is there one?"
But some of the older children know exactly whats going on. Seconds before Shera, 15, steps up to the catwalk, her brother, Johnny, 14, whispers in her ear, "I really dont want to do this." Neither does Shera.
Along with Nikki, their little sister, they have endured two unsuccessful adoptions, after which they were returned to foster care. They are wary of the adoption process and fearful it might not work out again. Still, Shera smiles brightly as she walks down the runway.
"I wasnt happy about it," she says afterward. "I just decided to grin and bear it. It feels like these people are going to the zoo and looking at the animals. Im not embarrassed about needing to be adopted. I just dont like making public whats between me and my family."
Thats the complaint critics have about adoption parties — that the events publicly humiliate the most vulnerable children, building up and then dashing their hopes of finding a family.
"Many foster kids are already damaged by some kind of horrible abuse," says Cook County, Ill., Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, whose outcry over the low number of children placed through Chicago-area parties persuaded local adoption officials to cease holding them.
"Our foster care system isnt very good, and chances are these kids have been abused there, too. Kids who werent picked at these adoption parties, which is most of them, were devastated. The party ends up being just another form of abuse."
Mr. Murphy suggests using videotapes of available foster kids as a gentler way for prospective parents to assess their options. "That way, a child doesnt know if she is rejected," he says.
Mady Prowler, spokeswoman for the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia, which sponsors several adoption parties each year, counters that as uncomfortable as these events make some people feel, they are much more effective than other recruitment techniques.
Although videotapes are highly effective in giving a better sense of a child "in action," Miss Prowler says its still better to meet face-to-face. "Actually meeting a child who has, say, attention deficit disorder and connecting with that child can make potential parents think about adopting a child with special needs," she says.
"Our choice is either to do things like this or let these kids sit in foster care until they are 18 and then go out into the world without a family," says Jan Dick, associate director for the Center for Adoption.
If theyre not adopted by the time they turn 18, many of these children will enter the world as independent adults without any family or means of financial support.
Despite government programs designed to ease the transition, studies of former foster children hold little promise.
"What I want today is to find a family," confided Mariah, 15, a sad-looking beauty, before the show began.
"It would be the most wonderful thing in the world to have a mom and a dad and be able to tell them how my day was, and have Daddy walk me down the aisle when I get married, and have Mama throw me a baby shower, and then to give them grandkids."
Watching from the audience, 13-year-old Jessica Reese can barely contain herself when she recognizes Mariah strutting down the catwalk.
"Oh my God, its her, its her," she cries out, tugging on her mothers arm. Cindi and Paul Reese already have four biological daughters, but want to adopt another child. Together with their children, they searched the Center for Adoptions Web site for kids to focus on at the fashion show. Mariah was obviously Jessicas favorite.
Six weeks after the fashion show, the Center for Adoption reports that serious interest has been expressed in at least 15 of the 36 children who participated. However, of all the prospective parents attending the Centers first monthly informational meeting after the show, none report that it was that event that attracted them to the idea of adoption.
This seems to suggest that the party had more impact on people who were already considering adoption than on those who happened to be at the mall that day.
Despite Sheras reservations about the adoption party, several potential parents who attended inquired about adopting her and her siblings, and caseworkers have selected a family that has passed a home study and seems to be a good fit.
The caseworkers could place Shera, Johnny and Nikki with their new family within one month, and the formal adoption process could be completed in six months to a year.
Shera is unsure which family chose them, but hopes its the one she met at the show and with whom she felt a "connection."


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